Under the guidance of new coordinator Gene Chizik, the football Tigers became a more aggressive and sound defensive unit as they head into the fall of 2002.
That aggressiveness starts at the linebacker position where starters Mark Brown, Dontarrious Thomas and Karlos Dansby have teamed to form a formidable group that should rival any in the SEC. Behind them is a talented group of young linebackers that give the coaching staff plenty of options with playing time.
Karlos Dansby is known as a hard hitter as he heads into his second season of college competition.
In fact, the linebacking corp is so deep and talented that the coaching staff is toying with the idea of playing more than three at a time in some defensive packages next season. Head coach Tommy Tuberville says that they may do some experimenting this fall and see how it goes.
"We have some depth at linebacker," he notes. "Probably going into this summer, when we sit down and look at what we're going to do, we're going to add some things. Instead of playing three linebackers, we'll play four and maybe five because we've got so much speed. Karlos Dansby would be a great rush guy so we'll mess around with that. We do have some speed and size and depth at linebacker--what a change from last year."
One of the leaders at the position is junior Dontarrious Thomas. The leading tackler on the 2001 team, he says this defense really gelled during the spring and should be fun to play with during the 2002 season and beyond for all the young guys.
"I feel that we have come a long way in the fact that we were able to pick up on the defense pretty quickly," Thomas says. "We do a lot of different things and we are able to disguise our coverages and blitzes to keep the offense on its toes."
Spencer Johnson has emerged as a leader on the defense because of his hard work last fall and this spring while playing through a number of injuries.
While the linebackers and secondary got much of the attention, the improved play of the defensive front was impossible not to notice. Players like Spencer Johnson and Reggie Torbor were known commodities heading into the spring, but other than those two it was up in the air how the rest of the guys would respond. Many of the questions have been answered as players like Dexter Murphy, Wayne Dickens, Bret Eddins, Jay Ratliff and Steven Bouldin showed they are very capable of getting the job done next season. Also, returning starter DeMarco McNeil is expected back after he recovers from knee surgery that kept him out of spring drills.
"All my success comes from them," Thomas says of the guys up front. "It doesn't matter how good you are. I don't care if you are Ray Lewis or Takeo Spikes, if you don't have a good line in front of you to keep those guys off of you it's trouble. Once those linemen get their hands on you it's kind of hard to fight off, but thankfully the guys that we have are getting the job done."
The defensive unit heads into the summer with a great deal of confidence and momentum following a successful spring practice session. For Chizik that means the world because he had hoped to get the basics down this spring and let the guys soak in a new system. With virutally everyone remaining injury free, not only were the Tigers able to get the basics in, they were able to build some chemistry along the way.
Gene Chizik coordinates the defense.
"I'm pleased with the overall progress of the defense in terms of them learning what it is overall that we're trying to do," Chizik notes. "We've got a long way to go, but we've still got two-a-days and the offseason. I feel good about where we are. It's about right on target in my opinion. We're going to see how much further we can go. I know by the time September 2 rolls around we're going to be alrigh...We're going to play hard and we'll have a chance in every game."